After a serious hand injury forces him off the bike, Bailey Newbrey is forced to confront his reliance on movement for his wellbeing. In this reflective essay on finding running that culminates in a 100-mile fastpack on the Continental Divide Trail in northern New Mexico, Bailey also examines why physical movement feels so vital as a means to combat the plagues of modernity…
With an abruptness that caused me to walk face-first into the back of his pack, Yeshe came to a halt in the middle of the trail. The sun was just beginning to set as we made our way through Martinez Canyon and the final six or so miles of a 100-mile fastpack. “Shhh,” Yeshe motioned to me, index finger to his lips. A moment later I became aware of the cause for his sudden stop.
A cougar’s birdlike mating call was resonating off the canyon walls, no more than a couple hundred feet away in our direction of travel. With the only reasonable option left to us being forward motion, we donned the largest sticks we could find and continued south on the trail with trepidation, past scattered animal bones and toward the highway where we’d end our journey.
What is Fastpacking?
As The Radavist is primarily a cycling blog, I feel a brief explanation of fastpacking may be appreciated. Simply stated, fastpacking is a hybrid of backpacking and ultra-running. The general idea is to move as quickly and efficiently across one’s terrain of choice on foot, carrying everything needed to be self-sufficient while traveling and camping on their journey.
The general setup is a backpack which is part running vest, part higher capacity backpacking bag, filled with most of the same things one would take on a backcountry bikepacking trip. Covering a maximum amount of distance quickly and comfortably thus necessarily dictates prioritizing lightweight and minimal gear when packing.
Bivys, quilts, and light rain gear being the predominant creature comforts, with calories being near the only other cargo filling out said packs.
Ok, now that we’ve covered the “what?” of fastpacking, I should probably add some context about the “how?” and my introduction to this activity. Why would I, an ultra-distance MTB athlete, choose to leave the bike at home and don running shoes? This one came as much a surprise to me as it may be to those of you who know me separately from the microcosms of the internet. The first weekend of December 2022, I was on an MTB ride with some buddies on the rebuilt/refreshed trails of the Arroyo Hondo headwaters (thanks SFFTS!).
Descending a newly built, but unfinished trail (yes, we had permission to ride) I hit a soft edge and set my hand down to catch myself, immediately hearing a disconcerting “pop!” Consciously lying to myself and the others on the ride, I decided it was just a bad sprain and continued the descent off Sierra Pelada and down to FR79. With adrenaline coursing through my body the descent didn’t feel too bad, but as soon as we began climbing singletrack up and out of the drainage I knew it was time to get real.
At the top of the climb, I turned off and headed back toward town while my buddies continued their ride through the southernmost mountains of the Sangre de Cristo on an idyllic December morning. Within the first couple miles of climbing and descending the black diamond trail—the sole option for a return route—I knew this injury was more serious than one that might simply end today’s ride. I’d most certainly broken a bone, or two, in my hand and I suspected that I would be off the bike for some time.
As someone who’d struggled with depression and suicidal ideation (if you suffer from suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the IASP) most of my adult life, typically worsening seasonally, I was worried for the coming months. As a lifelong cyclist, my mental well-being has been intrinsically tied to time on the bike. Long days in the saddle were where I felt most myself, where I could find an escape from the tedious falsehoods of modernity masquerading as “real life” and instead discover a deeper connection with the natural world and its ever-present patterns and complexities.
Being that Santa Fe is home to many amazing athletes, I’d come to befriend a handful of trail runners who liked to mix their time on foot in the mountains with time on mountain bikes. With their encouragement and gifted gear, I found myself riding one-handed up the ski basin road exactly one week after my crash, with the intention to lock my bike at a trailhead and run a familiar five-mile trail loop. But I’d never run five miles before.
My last, and farthest, run was exactly half my lifetime ago, in my junior or senior year of high school, when the sadistic gym teacher required everyone to run “The Mile.” I always hated it and felt awful at the end. Sure, I was young, fit, and athletic, but running was hard. I’d made my mind up back then that it was simply something my body could not handle, yet here I was, wearing these silly short shorts and techy shoes, locking my bike up, and heading into an unknown experience.
I can’t recall much from that first run, but I’m certain there were many moments of questioning my decisions and struggling to keep my body moving. What I do recall—vividly—was rounding the last big corner of my loop, putting the parking lot back into sight. I was dead tired and immensely sore, but I found myself suddenly wishing to be a bit further out, not quite done with the day. What was this? And from where did it manifest?
Just ten minutes earlier I was ready to start walking and pretend this never happened—forever packing away the running shoes—yet, somehow I found myself unready for the conclusion of this run and the inevitable return to society. Though my body was disagreeing with my ego, there was something that felt so natural, as if I was, in that moment, existing in the exact moment and place I was meant to be. This would become the predominant sentiment that would carry me through winter months, leaving no room or necessity for depression or mental health struggles. It became a rediscovery of the medicine of movement.
As is typical for many living in the Mountain West, late summer’s arrival in northern New Mexico brought with it dreams and schemes for the final dry months in the high country. Being that long, consecutive days on the bike had been my focus for years, it felt quite natural to search out the same thing on foot. With limited experience and high ambition, a familiar long route seemed the best way to test my abilities in an unfamiliar mode of travel.
Immediately my mind was drawn to a 100-mile stretch of gorgeous backcountry singletrack that I (and likely you, if you’ve been following along the past few years) know well. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, or CDT for short, offers one of the finest opportunities for multi-day MTB tours in northern New Mexico, with a stunning stretch of trail from Cumbres Pass just over the CO/NM border down to Martinez Canyon outside of Georgia O’Keefe’s chosen home of Abiquiu, NM.
Having ridden this section multiple times solo and with friends, I’d developed a familiarity with these mountains and meadows that one only garners through a desire to know, and be known to, a place. On this trail, I’d seen struggle and hardship. I’ve shared laughs and shed blood. I’ve sounded my barbaric yawp and barely eked out a whimper. And throughout all of it, I’ve been granted safe passage by this wild place.
This continued reciprocal relationship was what kept drawing me back and solidified my desire to attempt a fastpack of this trail in two days. I sent a message to Yeshe Parks, the first person I’d ridden the trail with, and he enthusiastically agreed to tackle this challenge with me. Neither of us had run 50 miles in a day prior, and certainly not over consecutive days while carrying the food, clothing, and shelter that an unsupported journey would necessitate.
In the midst of planning our fastpack, I’d also been on an e-mail thread with some friends coordinating an MTB tour of the same stretch of trail. As the message thread grew, there was the inevitable change of dates and people’s availability, eventually landing us on a group of five starting a week and a half after I’d be attempting the trail on foot. At some point in between the two trips, I was hoping to meet backcountry MTB extraordinaire and birthday buddy Kurt Refsnider for a night or two on the CDT while he rode the entirety of the bike legal sections.
Additionally, I’d be operating my bike shop, Sincere Cycles, in between these journeys. Though fully anticipating complete exhaustion by the end, waning time before winter settles into the high country always necessitates one final push of ambitious activity. With the bonus of a back-to-back comparison of two different forms of movement, I anxiously awaited the time on trail.
At 5 a.m. on an unassuming September morning, after a breakfast of cold “hot bar” cheeseburgers and tamales purchased from Bode’s in Abiquiu the evening prior, Yeshe and I started making our way down the trail, under a light rain in the predawn hour. Practicing the trick of quiet in the early morning mist would set the tone for our journey. It was neither solitude nor disconnecting we were after; rather we sought communion and connection with the land we passed through.
The intent was to observe and participate in the surrounding numinosity and, in turn, experience an atavistic connection to the earth which has been removed from our lives in modern society, where we’re taught we’ve no need for that which does not generate profit and thus have cast aside all which we can neither see nor commodify. Therefore, common knowledge would suggest that time in the mountains must be for solitude, as we cannot imagine communicating outside of an anthropocentric worldview.
We speak of “disconnecting” when taking time away from our cities and towns as if what occurs therein is somehow a “more real” form of connecting to life than what transpires in the few places we haven’t left our mark on.
The Western ego has othered us from a sincere connection to our natural state. We are largely separated from the actions and relationships that once allowed us to live in reciprocity with the world that sustains us. When I began running, my body did not agree with it. Only through time and repetition did the pain in unfamiliar places subside. I remember vividly the first run that didn’t leave me with immense foot/ankle/hip pain.
I was initially overjoyed at having gotten past the small overuse injuries of underused muscles and tendons. This quickly turned to the embarrassment that I—a 37-year-old “athlete”—was formerly unadapted to what may be the most natural form of human movement. I was not ashamed of this, but rather quite struck by how far we’ve strayed from our origins in such a short time in human history. We’ve been taught to seek out the path of least resistance in every aspect of daily life and that this ease is owed to us. We are no longer connected to that which connects us to life.
This year the US Surgeon General declared an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. While we exist in a time of near-global, instantaneous communication, we have found ourselves at a crisis of seclusion. The author Barry Lopez, in his posthumously-published non-fiction work titled Embrace Fearlessly The Burning World, stated that existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential are hallmarks of modern civilizations.
My cellphone, not counting the standard phone and messenger functions, has 15 different apps that allow for some form of communication and social interfacing. How can it be that we are feeling more alone and separate, while simultaneously finding ourselves in perpetual communication with friends, loved ones, and strangers? I’d suggest, as did Lopez, that it stems from a loss of relationship to the places which we inhabit.
Rather than finding comfort, connection, and thus reward, from the physical world in which we exist, we’ve been reprogrammed into searching out the same stimuli from increasingly disconnected and distorted sources. However, when we allow ourselves to break from these falsehoods, we can find ourselves unburdened by the need for constant stimuli and thus the loneliness which occurs in its absence. In a world that seeks low-effort rewards, rapid personal transport, and insincere dopamine floods, physical movement is an act of rebellion.
Finding contentedness outside of that which creates financial and physical wealth serves no purpose in a capitalistic society and thus is viewed as frivolous. Though we can’t all run into the woods and live off the land, we can push back in our daily lives and find purpose outside of the simulacrum. Labored breath is the medicine by which to purge oneself of the burdens of modernity.
This is not a trip report. Rather, this is an attempt at understanding what draws us into the mountains, why we feel detached from them, and how building these relationships can heal the damage done to our collective psyches in the name of monetary gains.